Space Access Update #84  6/17/99 
               Copyright 1999 by Space Access Society 

           Editorial: Right Intentions, Wrong Direction - 
             NASA's Destructive Approach To Cheap Access 

Let us be clear from the start: NASA's leadership may well share our 
vision of the importance of cheap access to our future - but their 
organization has screwed up the cheap access initiatives entrusted 
to it to date, from the mismanagement of DC-XA into a crash (we 
still haven't seen full public release of the predictable blame-the-
contractor report on that mess) to the muddled morphing of X-33 into 
a half-assed Shuttle II.  As far as we are concerned, the current 
push to do "X-Ops" reusable rocket low-cost operability demos in 
Future-X is NASA's last chance - if they mess this up too, come 2001 
we'll be pushing hard for removal of RLV (Reusable Launch Vehicle) 
technology development responsibility from NASA entirely. 

We reluctantly came to this conclusion last fall, and started 
working quietly behind the scenes to advance Future-X X-Ops work.  
Why are we going public now?  Because over the last two months the 
evidence has become overwhelming that the NASA old guard is 
reverting to malign old habits - they are once again pushing their 
internal agendas with reckless disregard for the interests of US 
industry and of the country as a whole, to the point of actively 
attacking the credibility and investment-worthiness of the reusable-
launch startups.  They have done so repeatedly, and (under the most 
charitable interpretation) factually incorrectly. 

This must stop, NOW.  If NACA in 1930 had been allowed to tell 
potential investors that Douglas and Boeing couldn't possibly build 
robust all-metal monoplane airliners without ten additional years of 
massive NACA research funding, we'd all still be taking trains.  
Assuming, of course that we survived WW II at all. 

If NASA can neither usefully support entrepreneurial low-cost launch 
ventures, nor at minimum shut up and stay out of their way, then 
it's time to start looking carefully at the parts of NASA involved, 
constraining the ones still needed, and defunding the rest. 


Our evaluation is that NASA is doing this to advance two major 
agendas.  One is to maintain the massive NASA Shuttle/Station 
bureaucracy into the indefinite future, by preempting all possible 
alternatives to some sort of huge full-employment Shuttle Upgrade or 
Shuttle Followon project. 

The other is to fund a wish-list of blue sky launch technology 
projects (including hypersonic airbreathing launch vehicles - NASP 
II, anyone?) at most of the other NASA centers under the name 
"Spaceliner 100", by attacking current (rocket) technologies as 
simply not good enough.  (For a NASA Spaceliner 100 briefing, see 
That's only our estimate of their motives, mind.  It's always 
possible NASA is attacking the commercial RLV outfits out of sheer 
random institutional bloodymindedness.  But attacking they are - and 
in general, the main content of their attacks is, uh, incorrect. 

In evidence, point #1 

 - From the April 8th speech by Administrator Goldin to the US Space 
Foundation (at in the 
context of supporting Spaceliner 100 (by the way, we totally agree 
with the grand vision expressed in this speech, of the importance to 
coming generations of investing in cheap space access now.  It's the 
proposed implementation that we vehemently disagree with.  We 
suspect Dan Goldin has been getting very bad technology advice 
lately): "At NASA, the technology barrier is the rocket."  He goes 
on to state, more or less correctly, that Shuttle launch costs are 
about $10,000 per pound, and then says "Expendable vehicles are not 
significantly cheaper" (with the unspoken corollary that reusable 
rockets can't possibly be much better.) 

It depends on your definition of "significantly", we guess - aside 
from the Titan 4, which involves almost as much bureaucracy as 
Shuttle, current medium-to-heavy commercial expendables cost from 
about half (Delta 2, Atlas 2) to about one fifth (ILS Proton) of 
$10K per pound to LEO.  NASA's recent line that even reusable 
rockets can't make more than a factor of ten reduction over Shuttle 
launch costs looks pretty foolish when decades-old expendable 
designs already undercut Shuttle by factors of two to five.  And at 
least two credible current expendable ventures are shooting for that 
factor of ten reduction. 

It is indeed possible that rockets, *as conceived by NASA*, can 
never get much cheaper than Shuttle.  There's considerable evidence 
to support this in NASA's recent RLV efforts.  But, if we can keep 
NASA from strangling the innovative RLV startups in their cradles, 
there is no fundamental law of physics preventing clever engineers 
without NASA's forty years of bureaucratic baggage from undercutting 
Shuttle costs by factors of ten right from the start, getting down 
to factors of as much as a hundred once experience refines systems 
and flight rates rise. 

In evidence, point #2: 

 - May 8th "New Scientist" magazine - at 
From an article on Richard (Virgin Atlantic Airways) Branson's 
investment negotiations with Rotary Rocket Company, a quote from a 
top-level NASA official dismissing Roton and other such reusable 
rocket concepts as "...system gimmicks to overcome the unbelieveable 
lack of technology they [the startup reusable rocket companies] 

Hmm.  NASA, by implication, has far better technology.  Oh, really.  
Who has full-scale graphite-epoxy LOX tanks?  Who has access to the 
best (Russian) rocket engines in the world?  Who can build composite 
fuel tanks, liquid hydrogen or plain old kerosene, that *don't* leak 
like sieves?  Who knows how to tow-launch high wing-loading 
vehicles?  Who has the biggest concentration of expertise in the 
world on vertical-landing rockets?  On aerial cryo-propellant 
transfer?  On rapid prototyping of high-strength ultra-light 
composites?  On high-performance non-toxic storable propellants?  

If you answered "NASA" to any of the above, you are *wrong*.  The 
answer in every case is "private industry", and in most cases the 
startups.  NASA still has pockets of excellence, but they float in a 
sea of mediocrity.  NASA slamming the startups' technology in order 
to get more funding for their own endless noodling is, frankly, 

That said, precisely what is wrong with "system gimmicks" if they 
*work*?  Are they somehow impure, unclean, unworthy of the true 
scientific guardians of higher-tech-at-all-costs?  A case in point: 
Modern military aircraft require a base with a ten thousand-foot 
concrete runway to operate effectively, right?  No possible way to 
cut that to one-tenth the size and, better yet make it mobile, short 
of some ultra-advanced technology like anti-gravity?  Right?

Uh... What is an aircraft carrier but a collection of "system 
gimmicks" - massive victorian-tech steam catapults for takeoffs,  
arrestor wires and tailhooks and mirror-and-light flightpath 
indicators for landings, angled flight decks to allow both at once, 
plus the accumulated operational expertise to make it all work, a 
mobile airbase a tenth the size of fixed landbased versions.  If the 
"system gimmick" RLV startups can make a major dent in launch costs, 
and it looks as if, given a chance, they can, we do not give two 
figs how "gimmicky" their technology is.  To quote some anonymous 
Cold War weapons designer, "'better' is the enemy of 'good enough'". 
In evidence, point #3:

This week's "Space News" - "Reusable Launch Vehicles A Decade Away, 
NASA Says."  We mentioned in Update #83 that the results of an 
industry study on what to do about Shuttle (STAS, the Space 
Transportation Architecture Study) were out, and that while many of 
the proposals were (predictably) for massively expensive one-size-
fits-all Shuttle replacements, at least some of the conclusions were 
sensible, IE gradually replace Shuttle with an EELV/CTV system that 
would meet NASA manned-space's basic needs with a relatively small 
investment while having (a major point to us) negligible impact on 
the commercial launch market.  

(STAS public non-proprietary results are at ) 
(EELV are the heavy-lift versions of the Enhanced Expendable Launch 
Vehicle, aka Delta 4 and Atlas 5.  CTV is a proposed Crew Transfer 
Vehicle version of the X-38 Station "Crew Rescue Vehicle" lifeboat.) 
Now it seems the NASA/Aerospace Corp response to the various STAS 
reports has been leaked to Space News, and the gist of it is:  NASA 
slams the various RLV proposals as unrealistic regarding schedule 
and budget (not surprising if they're geared to actually getting a 
contract to replace Shuttle; spending too much money over too long a 
time in all the right districts is an unspoken requirement for any 
would-be Shuttle replacement - it seems unfair to slam the proposals 
for soft-pedalling these unspoken specs) and proposes that NASA 
essentially micromanage a drawn-out process to eventually replace 
Shuttle sometime in the 2010's.  

Previous intentions to encourage commercial RLV developments have 
evaporated; NASA Shuttle II will be the only game in town, at least 
by this tell-the-customer-what-they-want-to-hear custom blueprint. 

Mind, we haven't seen this study ourselves yet; we're going on Space 
News's reading - but this agrees with the other recent evidence.  By 
essentially dismissing the chances any of the current crop of RLV 
startups could succeed and thus position themselves to meet a 
significant part of NASA's space launch needs, NASA significantly 
reduces the startups' chances of getting the investment they need to 
succeed, in a fine example of pernicious self-fulfilling prophecy.  
Meanwhile, by ignoring the meet-JSC's-needs-and-no-more EELV/CTV 
approach in favor of some flavor of massive-overcapacity Shuttle II, 
this study continues NASA's implicit threat of a subsidized grab of 
the core of the existing commercial launch demand, adversely 
affecting the investment climate for commercial space launch in 

This is rapidly approaching the point where we'll be able to make a 
convincing case that this nation's future in space would be better 
served by a radically reduced NASA.  We'd rather not find that road 
the only one left to us. 

                         Fixing the problem 

For starters, we'd like to see whoever's peddling this line at NASA 
HQ fired, or at least transferred to counting seabirds at some 
remote tracking station.  Not that the person in question is more 
than a representative of widespread NASA tendencies, but it will at 
least serve as an example to the rest.

We'd like to hear an unambiguous repudiation of the totally 
unacceptable anti-RLV startup investment advice voiced in the May 
8th New Scientist article. 

We'd like to see a firm NASA committment to "X-Ops", supporting 
interested startups in proving out and refining their low-cost 
launch approaches via low-cost subscale flight demonstrations on 
NASA's dime, in order to get them to the point where they are 
unmistakeably ready to raise commercial funds to develop full-scale 
commercial vehicles on an acceptable commercial timescale. 

Under those circumstances, we would find it appropriate to support a 
minimum-investment approach to guaranteeing Shuttle's NASA-unique 
missions, and to support a moderate level of investment in getting 
the various "Spaceliner 100" technologies closer to ready for prime 
time - we note that the proposed RBCC (Rocket-Based Combined Cycle, 
a hybrid rocket-airbreather) engine in particular has huge remaining 
unknowns in terms of weight, cost, and speed range, and much work 
needs to be done before any Trailblazer-class (~$500m) flight 
vehicle program is appropriate.  In other words, "show us the 
engine!"  - given X-33's develop-a-partially-new-engine problems, 
this should go without saying, but it apparently doesn't. 

We can understand why there might be dissatisfaction with reusable 
rockets at top levels in NASA, given the reluctance of the post-
consolidation aerospace majors to compete with themselves by 
committing significant resources, and given the organizational 
cluelessness in efforts to date.  But stomping the startups in an 
effort to fund NASP II and/or Shuttle II is not the answer.  

Give the startups a real chance now - tight funding, tight schedule, 
tight accounting, but minimal engineering elbow-joggling - and in 
three to four years, we'll know what's really possible. 

Stick with business as usual, and sooner or later the country will 
realize what damage NASA is doing, and will act appropriately. 

Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions 
in the cost of reaching space.  You may redistribute this Update in 
any medium you choose, as long as you do it unedited in its entirety.

 Space Access Society 

 "Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System" 
                                        - Robert A. Heinlein